There’s Another Terrible Beauty and The Beast Trope We’re Not Talking About
I’m not going to lie: I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the upcoming live-action Beauty and the Beast adaption. Like many a nerdy little girl, Belle was my favorite of the Disney princesses, and I can’t wait to see her brought to life in the shape of Hermione Granger: Emma Watson.
But there’s one thing that I’m not so excited to see, and I’m not talking about the long-running accusations of Stockholm Syndrome. No—I’m talking, of course, about the fact that Belle is Not Like Other Girls. (Did your eye just twitch when you read that? It makes my fingernails hurt to think about, too.)
A backhanded compliment you may remember from your days as one of two girls in your high school video game club, You’re Not Like Other Girls is both a narrative trope (so common it has its own TvTropes page) and a really frustrating type of benevolent sexism. It’s often used when a woman displays interest in or excels at traditionally “male” things, like sports, or—surprise—nerd culture. In fiction, it’s annoying as hell. In real life, it can shape the way women think of both themselves and the other women in their life.
Consider the Bimbettes (real names Paulette, Laurette, and Claudette, but collectively referred to in the Disney canon by the aforementioned name). The trio, apparently Belle’s only age contemporaries in the village, are pretty obviously intended to portray the “Other Girls” part of the NLOG trope. And boy howdy, are they silly. They’re man-crazy, ditzy, and easily distracted, obsessed with Gaston and oblivious to his myriad faults. The first time we see them in the movie, they’re literally swooning to the point of collapse simply because Gaston walked by. This is what the other women in the village are like, their presence silently implies. This is how Belle is different.
Notably, we never see Belle interact with them, for better or worse. Belle in general doesn’t seem to have any meaningful relationships with women, though we can see that she’s friends with the town bookseller, and she quickly wins over Cogsworth and Lumiere at the castle. This is part of the problem with the NLOG trope in real life: it draws artificial lines between women, separating the “worthy” woman, who may have meaningful and honest relationships with male friends, with the rest of “women,” who are frivolous, silly, and often catty (though to be fair, we never see the Bimbettes behave cruelly towards Belle. They seem like very nice girls).
So how could the live-action movie fix this? Well, for one thing, they could give Belle a female friend. I find it hard to believe that Belle is the only girl in town who’s read Jack and the Beanstalk, or who thinks Gaston’s socks need a wash. Belle is perfectly capable of being special without placing her totally apart from other women—if she isn’t, she’s not much of a heroine, is she?
In 1991, with modern feminism still fumbling through a world in which public sexual harassment accusations were groundbreaking and the United States Senate was a pathetic 2% female, it’s maybe not surprising that an intelligent, respected woman had to be somehow unique from other women. But it’s 2017, and even Taylor Swift has stopped comparing short skirts to T-shirts and started up a squad instead. The point is, we can do better.
Belle, shaped by scriptwriter Linda Woolverton with the explicit intent of being the first “feminist” Disney princess, is a lot of awesome things. Belle is clever. She reads books. She knows enough to give sentient slab of spare ribs Gaston the brush-off. But she’s far from perfect, no matter how glowingly Disney wants to portray its heroines.
The older we get, the more cracks appear in the things we love, and, perhaps because so many of us love it so much, Disney has always been particularly ripe for criticism. (I’m looking at you, Fantasia.) But it is a company that tries, despite flubs. Hopefully, the new Beauty and the Beast is way ahead of me—IMDB lists Zoe Rainey credited as Belle’s mother, and there are a number of credits for Village Lass and Debutante. Maybe one of them will prove to be part of Belle’s pack. Either way, I’m glad to see that no one has been credited as a Bimbette.
(image via Disney)
Lilli Petersen is a Brooklyn-based writer who has a lot of Feelings about politics, feminism, and proper sci-fi/fantasy worldbuilding. You can argue with her on Twitter at @LPonrecord.
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